Tag Archive: Australia


Two of the films that I was most keen on going into this year’s Sydney Film Festival hail from Senegal. New Festival Director Nashen Moodley is known for his knowledge of African cinema; he’s from Durban himself, and has been working with Africa programs at the Durban and Dubai film festivals for the past decade – a decade in which more and more African filmmakers have started to make names for themselves.

Nashen downplays the Africa thing, saying he’s just as passionate about films from Australia or Greece. Fair enough; but it’s hard to escape the fact that the guy knows his African stuff, and I was looking forward to seeing what he brought to SFF. I’m getting more and more tired of the focus on Western and Central Europe that is more or less automatic in festival-land (not that I was ever that Eurocentric in the first place) but now there’s so much amazing film coming from every region of the world – East Asia, the Middle East, everywhere – and to me that’s where it’s at right now. I feel like I have even less time for [insert name of multiple award-winning European auteur here].

In an Official Competition filled with distinctive films (from a six-hour Indian crime story to a South Korean animated psychodrama about school bullying), Today stands out in my mind for its narrative minimalism and its spiritual qualities. Directed by Senegalese Frenchman Alain Gomis, this magical-realist story is about a man named Satché, played by slam poet Saül Williams, who wakes up one day somehow knowing this day will be his last. We never find out how or why; Satché’s impending demise is taken for granted by him and his loved ones from the very first shot. The film is simply concerned with how he chooses to spend his day. In that sense the day becomes a metaphor for his entire life – and for all of life. As he wanders around the Senegalese capital of Dakar saying goodbye to friends and acquaintances, he passes through fear and anger and regret, but also acceptance and even joy. It sounds a bit high-concept to read about it; what makes the film work is Gomis’ crisp screenplay and deft, restrained directorial touch. Even in moments of celebration or heated anger, there’s an ephemeral, ghostly quality to each of Satché’s encounters – his baleful stare, his long silences, the way the city keeps moving around him as he stands lost in thought, as if he must be wondering whether he’s already dead and merely haunting the place.

In the terrific opening scene, Satché’s wife and family gather with him in a kind of ritual to vocally celebrate his life, to mourn its end – and also to criticize his faults. Satché silently takes it all in, the good and the bad, reflecting on a life that has run its course. I found myself painfully relating to his shortcomings as vehemently pointed out by his wife – his indecisiveness, his inability to get things done. I’m not sure if it means I have something in common with the character, or whether the screenplay functions as a mirror.

Williams’ understated but magnetic performance carries the film – he’s onscreen almost constantly. I did wonder why an American got cast in the lead – but the story vaguely alludes to Satché’s having lived in the States, and it adds an interesting sense of detachment. As it happens, director Gomis is an outsider himself, having been raised in Europe, so maybe it fits. (I have no idea if Williams’ lines in Wolof are delivered with the right accent or not.)

The depiction of Dakar is gorgeous, with all its rhythm, variety and color set against gleaming tower blocks and corporate offices that communicate the same postmodern alienation as anywhere else. The cinematography is beautiful, finding just the right balance between the rich hues of sunny African city streets, and a darker, more desaturated palette that speaks to the morbid nature of the story. (Amazingly, the film was shot on a Canon 1D.) Here I risk sounding like a cine-tourist, but such a varied and balanced view of life in urban Africa is one of the valuable things about the film. It reminds you that Western Africa is not all poverty and desperation – it’s just another part of the world with its own problems and its own way of doing things.

Today is really elevated by its largely dialogue-free and absolutely spellbinding third act. After his ramblings, Satché arrives back home; his wife cooks him a meal (including some delicious-looking fried balls of cornmeal that look like what we Americans would call hushpuppies) and he plays with his kids. The film becomes a kind of visual poem about hearth and home and food and contentment, which is constrasted with such an aching melancholy, such a bewildering awareness of death, that watching it I almost felt a sense of personal loss. But the sequence also communicates peace, a stillness that is about being present in the moment. It’s remarkably meditative. It seems like a cliché but this is a film that makes you value life.

And that’s where I find Today significant. The flavor du jour in European arthouse fare is nihilism. It’s all too easy to imagine how grim or hopeless this film would be if it were, say, Scandanavian – and how much more seriously it might be taken. (Want to debate about it? Let’s start with Joachim von Trier’s superb Oslo August 31st, one of last year’s best films, which by the way very much resembles Today in narrative structure. Is it bleak and miserable, or actually life-affirming? Months later I’m still deciding.) I don’t know if there’s something in Senegalese culture that allows for a more holistic and accepting view of death, or if Gomis himself has a singular talent for sharing spiritual insight on film. For now, it doesn’t matter; either way it’s resulted in a lovely film, one of the best of the year so far.

La pirogue takes a more standard approach, but it has the benefit of being set largely at sea. I’ll watch just about any movie about boats. Moussa Touré’s film is about the Senegalese refugees who brave the Atlantic every year in simple fishing boats (the pirogues of the title) in order to make it to Europe. As the film informs us, many of them die along the way due to storms or shipwrecks. This would resonate with Sydney audiences: every Australian knows full well the real-life significance of such asylum seekers and their impact on society. This film sets out to give them individual stories.

La pirogue‘s narrative is lean and spare: it is simply about a group of people who have a destination. Their journey turns into a struggle for survival. That’s it. There are few subplots, few efforts to make the story about something larger than it already is, which is life and death and the yearning for a better life.

Material like this needs to be played straight; the downside to that is that it might come across like a made-for-TV film. Whether or not it will be good cinema, in addition to communicating a good message, is all about the execution. La pirogue comes close to hitting the mark. It’s well-crafted, with very good production values – even its share of special effects. You could hardly call it low-budget, at least in terms of developing-world fare. Touré’s confident, unpretentious direction suits the story perfectly. The opening scenes of exposition on dry land are nicely handled and create strong dramatic interest, as a reluctant fisherman (played by Moctar Diop) is convinced to captain the fateful voyage, and a group of desperate inland refugees who don’t even speak his language are placed under his care.

Once at sea, it seems we’re in for a corker of a tale. Back to the boat thing: Touré says he was influenced by Master and Commander, one of my favorite mainstream films. You can see it here, not only in obvious moments (such as the deadly storm), but in the way he seems to have borrowed some of Peter Weir’s tricks in very effectively dealing with the cinematic problems of filming a feature-length drama with a number of characters on a crowded vessel. Despite the limited scope of the action we never lose interest; and there are some truly affecting, even heartrending moments of doubt, conflict and suffering. In such a confined space there’s a good deal of intimacy, both between the characters and for the viewer – and this, of course, allows Touré to humanize the lives of boat refugees without being preachy at all.

Unfortunately the story flattens out a bit during the third act. The screenplay seems to take shortcuts; just when we would like to get to know the characters just a little better, get a little bit deeper, the narrative is speeding along to its resolution (which is at least admirably free of sentiment) in typical docudrama fashion. It’s not as clumsy as it might have been in lesser hands, but it’s not quite there either. The acting is fine overall, but falters during some crucial moments. This film will indeed play very well on TV – or better yet, in educational contexts; honestly, every resident of the developed world should be made to watch it) though it left me wanting more.

But in the end, you know what? There are times when I’d rather watch an honest and heartfelt film like this one, with all its shortcomings, than something by [insert name of European auteur here].

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Vivid

Last week I covered the Vivid Sydney festival for inthemix and its sister website, FasterLouder. Vivid is billed as a festival of “light, music and ideas.” It’s most obvious component is visual: a number of buildings in the waterfront area of the city around Circular Quay, including the Sydney Opera House, are lit up each night during the festival with often spectacular colored lights and projections. But it also features some truly adventurous live music programming over eight days, all of the gigs taking place in the various rooms of the Opera House. (This aspect of the event is known as Vivid LIVE.) I reviewed five shows in six nights. It was demanding but fun. I’ve gathered all five reviews here into one post.

Saturday 26 May: Efterklang with Sydney Symphony

Approaching the Sydney Opera House on a chilly Saturday night, I get my first look at the light show that will grace its iconic “sails” throughout Vivid – the illusory spectacle of a gigantic woman lying on the roof, restlessly rolling all over it and idly knocking about its famous tiles. It’s strangely alluring. The projection is more elaborate than I remember from previous editions – a fitting harbinger for the elaborate music I encounter inside.

The Danish band Efterklang are in town for a performance specially commissioned by Vivid LIVE. Acclaimed for their lush, complex “indie chamber pop,” the group were invited to world-premiere songs from their unreleased fourth album, Piramida, at the Opera Theatre with the Sydney Symphony.

The Piramida Concert, as it’s called, is an excellent way to kick off a week of Vivid gigs, which tend toward the arty, the adventurous and – inevitably, because it’s the Opera House – the orchestral. It’s easy to make fun of the overweening ambition that can lead a pop performer to take on a posse of string players, but it’s actually produced some of the most memorable live music of recent years, from Portishead to Björk to Sufjan Stevens (who performs here later this week).

As the theatre hushes and the half dozen guys in Efterklang take the stage with the 30-plus members of the Symphony, the swirling sound that begins to reverberate in the room (indeed, the band’s name means “reverberation”) is suitably impressive, ethereal and autumnal – somehow crisp and delicate at once. The band’s stuff is a bit like Sufjan crossed with Arcade Fire – playing the flighty experimentalism of the former off the earthiness of the latter, with the moodiness of both – but the orchestra takes the material and shapes it into something effortlessly large and profound and timeless. A chorus of three female singers adds a subtly angelic touch; the sound is enhanced by electronic keyboards and effects, a welcome contrast to the classical instruments that seems perfectly natural. (The further we go into the future, the more electronica devours every other kind of music, but that’s another story.) Geometric shapes projected behind them (the album’s title means “pyramid”) add to the atmosphere.

Competing with conductor Matthew Coorey for space on the crowded stage, dressed in a salmon-coloured dinner jacket and jeans, lanky lead singer Casper Clausen is an impossibly twee but surprisingly charismatic frontman. His mincing steps, comic gestures and infectious energy (comparisons to David Byrne are unavoidable) provide an effective balance with the earnestness of the intricate music. His voice is powerful for such a skinny frame, reminiscent of Arcade Fire’s Win Butler. He and bassist Rasmus Stolberg both sport bowties and possibly un-ironic moustaches, and occasionally sip something out of mysterious metal bottles that rest on the stage. “They’re so Danish,” my friend says. And proud: at one point Clausen reminds us that Jørn Utzon, legendary designer of the place, was Danish too. This fact is also highlighted in the press material, so it’s clearly an important touchstone for them, and a reminder that the Opera House is one of the world’s great buildings.

The performance sags around the middle, some of the songs becoming unsatisfyingly thin and middle-of-the-road. On the one hand ,the more successful numbers come across like orchestral or experimental constructions with pop elements woven in. These seem to be the ones arranged by collaborator Karsten Fundal, who is sitting in the audience (and eventually gets a bouquet of flowers chucked at him by the playful Clausen). The less successful ones reverse that formula, feeling like pop with an orchestra added, and get bogged down with overly cute choruses or melodies that don’t quite click.

I can’t help but be more interested in the Symphony. I’m not exactly qualified to critique them, but the overall effect of the sound is naturally hypnotic. The highlight of the concert is a two-part piece called “Vælv,” written by Fundal alone rather than the band. During the second part, the band leaves the stage entirely and the Symphony launches into a powerful extended movement that swoops and soars and flutters in layered lines of melody like something by beloved 20th- century English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. (An instinctive comparison, but it sort of makes sense, as Vaughan Williams innovated the practice of adapting folk tunes for large symphonies). The piece is ravishing, and earns the biggest applause of the night.

The closing number, “Monument,” is pretty good too, and features some terrific film projections – black-and-white footage of an expedition in some icy northern sea that suggests a narrative tying in with the music. It would have been nice to see more of this during the rest of the concert. As the performance winds down, the crowd is rapturous, demanding a couple of encores and eventually lavishing a standing ovation on the Danish dudes and the Symphony alike. The Piramida Concert did not hit every mark for me, but it was a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend a Saturday evening, and it’s impossible not to admire it as a musical achievement. Good on Vivid for making it happen as an exclusive one-off right here in Sydney.

Sunday 27 May: Seekae

Day three of Vivid, and I’m again headed down to the Opera House. I must say I’m not tired yet of the light shows that pulse and dance on building façades all around the Quay and in the city beyond – some simply colourful, some truly enormous and dazzling – and I don’t think I will be. If you ask me it should be like this all the time. Easy to love this town on a night like this.

There’s more local love in store, as Sydney electronic exemplars Seekae are performing in the Opera Theatre. It’s my first time seeing the trio live, and I’m pretty keen as I’ve heard nothing but good. The band have built up quite a following in the past couple of years among fans of thoughtful electronica; it’s their first hometown gig in a while, and it’s reputed they’ve put together an extra-special show to match the upmarket setting.

As Seekae are joined onstage by an eight-piece string ensemble, I recall the Efterklang/Sydney Symphony concert last night, and I marvel at all the energy and ambition put into all the Vivid gigs this week. I do wonder if I’ll be seeing Seekae in their proper element, or whether the occasion will overwhelm their music. But this is what a festival’s all about – taking risks, experimenting in public, making weird connections and seeking (if you will) elusive magic.

Not that Seekae play it safe anyway – the music is adventurous as word of mouth has advertised, offering a plethora of different takes on contemporary electronica, sometimes venturing into dark, glitchy, abstract territory reminiscent of Casino Versus Japan, and then back out again with bright little jewels of burnished, shimmering electro-pop à la Dntel or Caribou, with energetic bursts of Four Tet-like brilliance to tie it together.

There’s a welcome live feel to the proceedings, especially with the dynamic drumming. The string ensemble add an impressive dimension, but as I noted at the Efterklang concert, I am easy to please when it comes to orchestral manoeuvres. Despite the complex feel to the sound, there’s a buoyant sense of fun to the proceedings. I could do without the dubsteppy stuff, but hey.

One thing: the band are dressed as casually as if they were playing in a garage, with rumpled jeans and sneakers. Nothing wrong with that; you gotta admire their unpretentiousness, but come on – if you were booked to play at Sydney Opera House, wouldn’t you want to dress it up a little just for fun? Maybe put on a funky vest, a cowboy tie, some mascara – or all of the above?

The “uptown” setting at first seems to inhibit the audience, mostly twentysomethings who probably don’t find themselves in the Opera House on a Sunday night all that often. They’re unable to get up and dance, of course, but they’re also a bit shy about making lots of noise. However as the night goes on, it’s a relief to realise the trappings of the theatre have lent a special vibe to the gig. Whereas at a club the crowd might be standing with folded arms and doing the white-boy head-nodding thing, or milling about and looking at their phones, tonight all attention is focused on the music (especially as the band don’t have much showmanship as such). Rather than being dull or restrained, there’s something cozy about it. The music envelopes the room completely – the acoustics are perfect, of course, and aren’t too loud. It’s like sitting in a comfy place with friends and listening to an entire album on some really awesome speakers.

That clarity is both good and bad; it reveals the flaws in the music as well as its strengths. Seekae’s songs sometimes feel incomplete or half-formed – lots going on, lots of ideas, but lacking the killer hooks and transcendence that characterise their influences like Boards of Canada or Gold Panda. And the show feels a bit cerebral at times, especially in the polite setting, especially with the string players – like a really ambitious music student’s thesis performance, except the booze isn’t free.

The performance has its ups and downs too. The string players abruptly get up leave the stage about halfway through the show without taking a bow. It’s awkward, and disappointing at first, as it seems to derail the whole idea of the special theatrical gig. But in fact, having the stage to themselves loosens the band up a bit – as if they were trying a bit too hard with the traditional instruments looming behind them – and they come up with some of their best moments afterwards. The baby grand piano at stage left figures prominently in the quietly beautiful songs at the show’s heart.

Two terrific new numbers feature delicate vocals accompanied by haunting synth lines, coming across with a bit of the soul and mystery of James Blake. Apparently vocals are new to the Seekae game, but I was impressed. As things wind down, the show picks up with fan favourites from acclaimed albums The Sound of Trees Falling on People and +Dome that are more funky and tuneful. The reception from the crowd is warm. The guys in the band have said that this is their biggest gig ever, and they deserve kudos for having the guts to try out some new sounds on such a stage.

What Seekae sometimes lack in melody, they eventually make up for with atmosphere; and their verve, confidence and willingness to take chances are all the more impressive given their unassuming demeanour. This show did not blow me away, but the key thing is they may have made a new fan. These are some extremely talented, genuine young dudes and they’re going places. During a week when we’ll be checking out plenty of world-class talent at the Opera House, Sydney should be glad to claim them as their own.

Tuesday 29 May: Imogen Heap

UK singer/songwriter and “digital diva” Imogen Heap was invited to perform an informal sunset recital for Vivid in the North Foyer of the Opera House. Heap is known for incorporating a spectrum of organic and digital sounds into her performances via a high-tech setup, including a pair of custom-made gloves wired to let her control the music with Wii-like gestures. But here she’s limited to a baby grand piano and it’s all about the songs – specifically six songs from her latest project, Heapsongs, which she created with input from fans around the world who sent her “song seeds” in the form of words, images and recorded sounds.

At first, the session is hit or miss. It’s too cold in the foyer. The bar right behind us is disappointingly closed, but for some reason the bartender stands there for the entire show anyway. And strangely, given Heap’s trademark technophilia, there are glitches in the matrix. She’s meant to perform the songs accompanied by their video clips on three monitors behind her; it’s as cumbersome as it sounds – she has to synch with a click track in her headset, and simply starts over when she messes up a couple of times. The video feed is straight from her laptop; between songs we see her fiddling with her software onscreen.

Heap talks a lot, explaining each song, and explaining it some more. It’s more like a TED talk than a show (no stretch as Heap is a TED veteran). Her piano interpretations of these intricate digital constructions have a bizarre once-removed feeling; she describes how she sampled a classroom full of kids; we see the kids in the video, but hear only her. As she admits, we’re experiencing the songs “as they were never meant to be heard.”

But I’m soon taken in. Heap’s spacey rambling, which reminds me of Eddie Izzard’s, is funny and charming, at times highly emotional. Her stories about her creative processes are pretty cool; she based one song on a fan’s recording of an unborn child’s heartbeat; another was a sonic collaboration with the citizens of Hangzhou, China.

In the end, the unplugged vibe actually works. Heap treats the piano like just another machine, and there’s something interesting about imagining about all of these sounds and contributors (Bollywood singers, birds, Slinkys) while Heap paints aural pictures to interpret them. The songs themselves are heartfelt, sometimes twee, filled with fantastic lyrical imagery that could be from Tolkien or Miyazaki. People transform into trees. Machines feel emotion. A crumbling wall speaks.

Heap’s boundless desire to share her music and herself with fans and ordinary people, coupled with her ingenious ways of going about it, are ultimately infectious. She concludes by inviting us to participate in her latest collaborative experiment. The Listening Chair, unveiled at the Opera House this week, is an egg-shaped retro-futuristic lounge chair outfitted with recording devices to gather information from whomever sits in it about what songs they think are missing from the world. It’s an idea as weird and wonderful as its creator.

Wednesday, 30 May: Karen O in Stop the Virgens

From the word-of-mouth buzz, Stop the Virgens was clearly one of the hot tickets of Vivid. The brainchild of Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and K.K. Barrett, visionary production designer for films like Being John Malkovich and Where the Wild Things Are, the show debuted in Brooklyn last fall before coming to Sydney Opera House. It’s billed as a “psycho opera” – a musical fantasia featuring outlandish costumes and sets, a hard-edged score and O’s famous banshee pipes. The band/orchestra includes fellow Yeahs Nick Zinner (one of the music directors) and Brian Chase, along with keyboard legend Money Mark.

Note: you can’t say “There’s not a bad seat in the house” about the Opera Theatre; the view from the balcony is awful. You have to lean over the rail to see anything at all. Before the show I look down: Virgens move about the house with trancelike motions, oblivious to the patrons as they take their seats. Onstage a Sentinel glares at folks the front row. Clearly there’s some scary interactive shit in store for us tonight.

The show kicks in with an ominous whoosh. Where to begin describing things? There’s a gaggle of Virgens and an entire chorus of Virgen Acolytes, with shimmering white toga-like costumes and platinum wigs. Sentinels in flowing purplish robes, resembling the evil Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty, flank the stage, which is transformed into a numinous fantasy realm with elemental motifs of trees, snow, water and blood. O is the witchlike Narrator. They interact with ritualistic flair. Symbolic violence is constantly threatened.

The costumes are what get the attention. Karen O has already joined the ranks of meta-fashion plates like Björk, M.I.A and a certain other annoying superstar who doesn’t need any free publicity from me; this show ups the ante. The costumes are crazy enough. O flaunts many variations on the fairy-tale diva/goddess/gangster moll and sings into a bejewelled animal’s horn. The show’s visual and thematic touchstones are Maurice Sendak (obviously), Greek mythology, Dante’s Inferno, Jim Henson, Tim Burton, Disney’s Fantasia, contemporary artists like Matthew Barney, Rocky Horror, Wagner and I’m guessing various other actual operas, although I’m less educated on that score.

So what’s the story about? Beats me. The visual scheme and choreography suggest rites of passage, primal emotion and pain, universal forces like death and menstruation – but nothing adds up. Like a music video, it doesn’t really have to be about anything I guess. But it dances a bit too close to camp for my taste. There’s only so many ways a chorus of Virgen Acolytes can gesticulate wildly and writhe around onstage before it gets silly. At times the whole thing seems nothing more than an elaborate ode to the joys of fabric: the costumes, the curtains, the swathes and swatches and bundles of many-coloured fabric that are constantly wrapped around the characters and danced with and chucked all over the place.

On its own terms, Stop the Virgens delivers the goods. It’s dynamic, it’s fabulous, it’s a feast for the senses. If you’re into spectacle, noise and fabric, this is your thing. Did I mention the costumes?

But it’s lacking depth, to say the least. As theatre or opera it doesn’t work without narrative; the music kicks ass but keeps getting upstaged. The raucous curtain call at the end gets the crowd pumped, but spoils the otherworldy atmosphere and goes on for way too long. The one real, undeniable thing is Karen O’s explosive voice. The rest seems frivolous and disposable. How did the Yeahs get to the rock-opera stage already? In simpler times they unleashed a transcendent cyclone of sound with just two instruments and that voice. There’s more power and fantasy in that voice alone than in all the costume changes you can dream of.

Friday 1 June: Future Classic Studio Party with Isolée, Jacques Renault and Flume

When I get into the Studio for the Future Classic Studio Party, the place is packed and the dancefloor is lively. Sydney up-and-comer Flume is mid-set, rocking Biggie Smalls over an electro-breakbeat track mash-up style, and it’s a bit overmixed and noisy. More breaks follow, on a tangent somewhere between dubstep and G-funk. The crowd is pumped. The tracks are not bad, although some of them sound a bit like commercial R&B, but the kid doesn’t seem to want to mix tonight – relying instead on echoes and effects between tracks. And I could really do without him doing the hands-in-the-air thing like he was headlining a festival, and getting on the mic. Call me a purist.

While the Future Classic DJs mix things up between sets, I head out to grab a drink and check out the DJs in the lounge. They’re playing some choice classics of the ’80s garage and electro-disco variety. Wouldn’t mind hearing a bit more of that inside, honestly.But when I head back into the studio, Isolée (otherwise known as Rajko Müller) is on and things have turned around. The agenda is deep as expected. He’s playing his own material, which he has years’ worth to draw on, and it’s scintillating stuff. The nice thing is the crowd is really into it – people say minimal or deep stuff is over, but get someone who knows how to rock it and see how it moves people. The interesting thing is, here on the dancefloor this stuff doesn’t actually sound very “minimal” or “micro” at all. It’s chock-a-block with gorgeous strings, playful synths and keys, tribal drums and haunting soulful vocals. It just sounds like really beautiful and well-done house with a tech edge. And thankfully he’s one of those producers who knows how to play a live set like a proper DJ – the set is smooth as butter, with terrific buildups and breakdowns that stretch out the vibe expertly.

Jacques Renault comes billed as Mr. Disco, but during the 90 minutes or so I catch of his set it’s not really disco, garage nor even old-school house he’s rocking. Instead it’s an interesting simulacrum of the bright, bold big-club house of the ’90s, the stuff we heard at Twilo or the Tunnel in a bygone era. We’re talking hard-hitting drum sounds with huge kicks and dry, untreated high-hats; power keyboard riffs and strings; predictable but totally effective buildups and breakdowns that ooze drama; sexy diva vocal samples. These days it’s hard to tell if DJs are playing this kind of stuff ironically – you know, with air quotes – or if they mean it. The reason it’s OK either way is because it’s exactly a million times more real and soulful than the horrible progressive stuff that a majority of jocks hammer; and when a party is packed at peak time, sometimes it’s exactly what’s needed. It’s a proven formula and a hell of a lot of fun.

The downside? Same as back then: the predictability, the dry sounds – after a couple of hours, it starts to sound too much like commercial club music; and makes you pine for the sinister magic of old-school and deep house. Which is why the “minimal” sound of Isolée and his ilk was so revolutionary when it first hit in the late ’90s. (Actually, now that I think about it, the dynamic between the two schools just shows the typically clever and thoughtful programming of the Future Classic guys).

But give Renault credit: he’s a really good mixer – not only smooth on the fader but making good narrative choices, alternating the diva-y stuff with (good) progressive or tech (even working in some breakbeats). He builds the vibe section by section, knowing exactly when to tease the crowd with a bit of EQ action and when to just let ’er rip. And I’m sure this was just a taste of his repertoire – would love to catch him on the next go round and hear him dig in the crates.

Decisions, decisions

It’s that time of year again. The air turns crisp, the ground is covered with pink and white cammellia petals, and it’s time to book tickets for 20 films at Sydney Film Festival with my staff Flexipass.

I’ve been the program editor at SFF for three years now. It so happens I’m one of the first to hear about the film program during the gruelling weeks of putting together the print guide. One interesting film after another appears on my radar while I’m hard at it, and I barely have time to think, much less plan what to see. Then my deadlines pass, work slows down, and there’s that delicious moment when I sit down with the guide – my handiwork – and, armed with an orange highlighter, start choosing the films I’ll be checking out in June.

OK, so I work for SFF, but this is not some kind of obnoxious insider’s rant. I’m lucky enough to have an insider’s perspective, but I’m a punter when it comes to seeing and writing about the films – most of which have only screened at overseas festivals I can’t afford to attend.

So these are the 20 films I’ve settled on, in the order I plan to see them. They are largely, but not necessarily, what I’m guessing will be the 20 best at the fest. I have to make hard choices, and some films get tragically left out because they clash with my schedule. I might hedge a bet because I know a certain film will get released or someone will get me a copy; I might be avoiding overdoing it in a certain section or genre (especially Freak Me Out, always a temptation); or it could be down to supporting Australian films over others. Screenings at the State Theatre definitely have priority. It’s a game in itself, and the end result is always a strange cat’s cradle of marked-up sessions.

The vagaries of the festival calendar mean that on some days I’ve only booked one film, while on others I have up to four to watch back to back – an ambitious but foolhardy feat which only results in delirium and confusion even in the geekiest hardcore cinephiles. But somehow things always work out – I end up skipping a screening here, hustling tickets for another there, something unexpected becomes my new favorite movie ever, and the festival always turns out to be a blast…

Always a blast

My Flexipass 20:

  1. La pirogue (Thursday, 7 June, 2:20pm, Event Cinemas) – The first full day of the festival begins for me with a film from Senegal that’s set to screen at Cannes next week and will almost certainly not get a commercial run here. To me that’s where it’s at. Not to make some hokey statement about the superiority of “real-life stories” – for starters I don’t even believe that; I like my stories to be a lot weirder than real life. But if I have to choose, I’ll take a film about African boat refugees starring unknown or nonprofessional actors over a lot of other more ballyhooed festival fare.
  2. Caesar Must Die  (Thursday 7 June, 6:15pm, State Theatre) – Winner of the Golden Bear at Berlin, in competition here, this mix of documentary and drama is set in a Roman prison, where the inmates are staging a version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Golden Bear winners have been some of my faves of recent years, and the premise just sounds cool.
  3. Killer Joe  (Thursday 7 June, 9pm, Event Cinemas) – From ace guest programmer Richard Kuipers’ Freak Me Out section, this looks to be the kind of sleazy and violent but intelligent (and even subversive) thriller I would have eaten up as a kid late at night on Cinemax. Directed by William Friedkin (!!), featuring a rumored great performance from Matthew McConaughey, this sounds like an excellent chaser for Caesar Must Die.
  4. Beasts of the Southern Wild and
  5. Moonrise Kingdom (Friday 8 June, 6:30pm and 8:30pm, State Theatre) – This is the evening at the festival I’m looking forward to most: a double dose of magical Americana screening at the truly awesome State; one from a new director (Benh Zeitlin) riding a wave of acclaim at Sundance, the other from freaking Wes Anderson. Both feature child protagonists and and culminate in third-act storms; one stars Bruce Willis and the other does not (but, hey). These were my top choices from the get, and they’re screening back to back; I can’t imagine a better double feature.
  6. Lore (Saturday 9 June, 6:15pm, State Theatre) – An Australian competition film is almost a must-see; but Cate Shortland’s latest has a decidedly un-Aussie setting and I have to admit I’m more curious than usual: it’s a drama about German refugee children and the Jewish kid who helps them at the end of World War II.
  7. Tabu (Sunday 10 June, 7:15pm, State Theatre) – This black-and-white competition title from Portugal is a mix of drama and adventure split into two narratives, one of which is set in colonial Africa. The wife loved it and said I should not miss it, so there we are.
  8. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Monday 11 June, 4:15pm, State Theatre) – I’m a sucker for Turkish cinema, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s meditation on crime and punishment is one of the most talked-about Turk titles in years; cannot miss a screening of it at the State.
  9. The Warped Forest (Monday 11 June, 9 pm, Event Cinemas) – Another entry from Freak Me Out, this fantasy/horror piece is apparently one of the weirdest movies of recent years – and solely given the fact that it’s from Japan, I don’t see how there can be a ceiling on that claim. I picture something like a live version of Miyazaki, with elements of early Cronenberg. (Actually, it’s also a leading contender for “Film I’m Most Likely to Skip Because I Decided It Would Be Too Weird.”)
  10. The King of Pigs (Tuesday 12 June, 6:15pm, State Theatre) – This violent animated Korean thriller about class conflict in high school is actually screening in competition; it therefore has a cool dark-horse status (of course it’s not going to win! animation’s for kids!) that automatically makes me want to support it over other films.
  11. Postcards from the Zoo (Wednesday 13 June, 8:30pm, Dendy Opera Quays) – Indonesian weirdness from “maverick” one-named director Edwin, about a girl raised in a zoo who falls in love with a magical cowboy. What’s not to like here?
  12. Dead Europe (Thursday 14 June, 6:30pm, Event Cinemas) – Must-see Aussie competition title part 2; this one from director Tony Krawitz, about a guy from Sydney who digs into his family’s past in Greece only to discover ghosts and curses. Sounds all right to me. From a novel by Christos Tsiolkas, author of The Slap. Screening back-to-back with The Loneliest Planet (below), forming a promising double feature about travel and alienation.
  13. The Loneliest Planet (Thursday 14 June, 8:45pm, State Theatre) – Gael García Bernal stars in a story about a romantic hiking trip in the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia that goes all wrong. Gael always chooses good screenplays, and this one dovetails with my cinematic fascination with the Near East and Asia Minor.
  14. Barbara (Friday 15 June, 2pm, Event Cinemas) – For a number of reasons, when it comes to choosing films I find myself drawn to almost any other region before Europe. But I figured I should get at least a couple of Euro titles in, and this one, a drama from director Christian Petzold about an East German woman doctor exiled to a country backwater in 1980, seems pretty promising for reasons I can’t articulate. It might be the haunting melancholy of the vintage Cold War setting; or it might be the promo stills of the rather cute Nina Hoss riding a bike.
  15. Death for Sale (Friday 15 June, 4:30pm, Dendy Opera Quays) – This Moroccan neo-noir thriller about a band of small-time crooks has been praised to heaven since it premiered at Toronto last year. For some stupid reason I missed it at Abu Dhabi Film Festival, where I also work and where part of its funding came from. Maybe it was meant to be, because now it’s the first in my planned triple feature about violence and honor on the festival’s last Friday.
  16. Retaliation (Friday 15 June, 6:30pm, Dendy Opera Quays) – This 1968 yakuza “bullet ballet,” part of the retrospective of exploitation flicks from Japan’s Nikkatsu studio (celebrating its 100th anniversary) was one of my top picks anyway, but coming right after Death for Sale makes it even more obvious.
  17. Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (Friday 15 June, 9pm, Dendy Opera Quays) – This one from Takashi Miike will conclude a possibly exhausting triple feature with lots of eviscerations in 3D. This was a tough choice, because I have no interest in seeing it in 3D – but I didn’t want to miss another epic samurai flick from Miike, whose 13 Assassins was one of the highlights of the last festival. (And as it happens, the one 3D title I saw last year, Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, was also one of the best, so here’s hoping those two trends work together.)
  18. Neighbouring Sounds (Saturday 16 June, 11:45am) – This competition film from Brazil just seems to be all about the stuff I’m into lately: naturalism, meditations on architecture and urban decay, Brazilian chicks getting high, abstract sound design, waterfalls of blood, etc. Anyway I love watching the more out-there competition films in the morning.
  19. The Angels’ Share (Saturday 16 June, 8:40pm, State Theatre) – Ken Loach, booze, dudes in kilts.
  20. Wuthering Heights (Sunday 17 June, 2:30pm, Event Cinemas) – Emily Arnold’s adaptation of Emily Brontë’s classic has gotten very mixed reviews but it sounds like strong stuff either way. Turns out I haven’t read the book, so that’s not a factor (the way it would be with, say, Jane Austen). But I like what I hear about the bleak, primal, postmodern depiction of 19th-century Yorkshire.

Animation’s for kids

Most painful exclusions (must see about taxing the wife’s Flexipass): Safety Not Guaranteed (not by choice – turns out I’m busy on Closing Night), Marley (I’m a itinual fan, of course, but I imagine I’ll have a chance to see it again), Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter (easily the best title in the festival), The Parade (might be missing a goldmine of dry Balkan humor), Dreams of a Life (doco about a woman whose corpse was found in her London apartment three years after she died)Modest Reception (Iranian situationism run amok), Livid (more Freak Me Out awesomeness), Searching for Sugar Man (Sundance audience award-winning doco about “lost” ’70s soul singer Rodriguez), Undefeated (Oscar-winning football doco), OK, Good (indie psychological thriller in Freak Me Out), A Simple Life (universally acclaimed Hong Kong drama about a retired housemaid).

Titles I’ve already seen and love, like or at least recommend: Rampart, Polisse, Policeman, Headshot, Today, Monsieur Lazhar, Goodbye, Alps, Where Do We Go Now?

Stray cat rock?

The Tree

Julie Bertucelli’s The Tree, starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, closed the Cannes Film Festival a couple of weeks ago before premiering in Australia on Sunday night at the State Theatre as part of the Sydney Film Festival. I’ve been going on about Aussie cinema a lot lately, so it was nice to be present at the premiere of such a noteworthy new Australian film. True, it’s a French co-production, with a French writer/director and an Anglo-French star; but the story, characters, and setting are as thoroughly grounded in Australia as the titular tree.

That tree is a very old, absolutely massive Moreton Bay fig that dominates the rural Queensland countryside for miles and dwarfs the two-story house inhabited by Dawn (Gainsbourg) and her family. When her husband suddenly dies, Dawn is left alone with four kids, and she’s hardly up to the task. A whimsical, irresponsible woman of nearly forty, who has never had a job and has always let others make decisions for her, she is now overwhelmed by grief. As months pass, she retreats into a shell, the household falls apart, and it seems her kids are raising her.

One of those kids, the 8-year-old Simone, becomes convinced her departed father communicates with her through the fig tree. She spends a lot of time nestled in its huge branches, talking to him. Dawn, as childlike as her daughter in many ways, grows to believe the same thing. The reassurance granted by that belief gives her the strength to try and get it together. This involves getting a job and, as it happens, seeing another man (Marton Csokas), which causes a rift between her and Simone. Increasingly Simone retreats to the tree for support and guidance; but the tree seems to have its own ideas.

The overt plot and central conflicts mark The Tree as a chick flick. It’s about family, grief and crisis, and learning to love. But it’s a splendidly abstract, low key chick flick, with a child’s sense of wonder, and beautiful performances. Gainsbourg inhabits a very difficult character with eccentric grace. The young Morgana Davies is superb as Simone. Csokas is all warmth and restrained intensity in the thankless role of the love interest who is, well, not a tree.

Bertuccelli depicts country life in Queensland with a prosaic touch. The house is ramshackle, its inhabitants humble and working-class. The interior design is nothing special; the children wear hand-me-downs. The highlight of the family’s year is driving a beat-up camper van to the beach for Christmas. The dialogue is straightforward and laconic in a classic Aussie way; a lot goes unsaid. All of this is presented plainly, with no effort to make it hip or stylish. As with rural people in real life, what they lack in cool, they make up in the natural beauty surrounding them.

The relationship of people with nature is a central part of the Australian psyche; the untamable wilderness of this land is often a force of reckoning in Australian fiction — characters discover or lose themselves when confronted by its power. The Tree carries on that tradition, but in a way that’s gentle and wonderfully organic. The characters go about their lives, the plot moves forward, but nature has a way of intruding. Some of the best moments in the film are the evocative little encounters with ants, frogs, bats, and jellyfish. The characters are captivated by these interruptions, and so are we, under the quiet spell woven by Bertucelli.

The tree is the main event of course. It’s gorgeously filmed — the luxuriant green leaves and hazy light filtering through its boughs effectively illustrate love and nurturing, and perhaps something more mysterious. The lush sound design helps make the tree a living presence. It intertwines with the characters’ lives, seems to envelop them and the story completely. There’s a little of the magic of Aronovsky’s The Fountain at work here in a more subtle format.

The Tree is a lovely, quiet little story about regular people — and it deserves mass appeal. But Bertucelli ingeniously makes the events of the film seem like a fable or a myth, and she’s crafted a fine new entry in the Australian canon.

Red Hill

The creators of the brutal, genre-mashing Australian thriller Red Hill have good timing. Ozploitation has been hip lately. Critics and audiences are reassessing the cycle of low-budget, often violent Aussie genre pictures that saw their heyday in the 1970s (as glorified in the 2008 documentary Not Quite Hollywood). Meanwhile a new breed of Ausie cult film has been thriving on the festival circuit and in video outlets. SFF 2010 features a few including The Loved Ones and Caught Inside. And the target clientele should be well pleased by this entry.

But Red Hill is no mere cash-in; writer-director Patrick Hughes comes out guns blazing in his debut, aiming high, going for a new kind of Australian cult film. Part Western, part horror, paying canny tribute to genre classics with lots of style and confidence, Red Hill is also ambitious enough to engage in Australian mythmaking.

Ryan Kwanten (True Blood) plays Shane, a young cop from the city who transfers with his pregnant wife to the town of Red Hill (pop. 120) in the high country of Victoria — a place where people actually get around on horseback. He quickly finds more than he bargained for amongst the suspicious locals and working under the hard-bitten, spiteful sheriff (Steve Bisley). Then all hell breaks loose when an apparently psychopathic escaped convict (Tommy Lewis) — a local Aboriginal cowboy put away for murdering his wife years ago — hits the town gunning for retribution.

The expository stuff is not the strength of this film — in fact, a few moments early in Red Hill resemble any other thriller found on late-night cable with choppy story editing and sometimes unsure acting. But the film hits its stride when the convict Jimmy arrives on the scene and starts shooting the place up. Hughes has clearly learned the elements of violent action mise-en-scène from masters like Walter Hill, Clint Eastwood, and Robert Rodriguez, with a big helping of horror à la John Carpenter. As the action escalates, each well-executed sequence employs gritty suspense and quiet restraint before its bloody payoff. And it’s always a pleasure when a genre piece nods at more upmarket fare; in this case, Hughes treats us to a knowing pastiche of No Country For Old Men. For fan-types this film will be a lot of fun to watch.

But there’s also a surprisingly powerful emotional element that deepens as the film goes on. Shane’s impending fatherhood and his questionable courage under fire resonate as the stakes increase; and as we find out more about the town’s dark past it becomes a key to the violence. The legendary quality is augmented by the nicely-shot rugged exteriors — big open spaces isolating the characters from civilization, from the present, and from each other.

Red Hill has plenty of awkward moments, but it comes together well before it reaches its wrenching climax. Hughes has crafted a grim tale that’s uniquely Aussie but should have broad appeal in any hemisphere. This is quality cult fare with welcome pretensions; and if Hughes can build from here he’ll be mentioned in the company of his influences one day.

The 2010 Sydney Film Festival formally opened at the State Theatre on Wednesday night with the world premiere of South Solitary, directed by Shirley Barrett and starring Miranda Otto, Marton Csokas, and Barry Otto. Barrett directed the Cannes-prizewinning Love Serenade (1992), also starring Miranda Otto, which happens to be playing in a restored version here at SFF; but she had not been active for the better part of a decade.

As I’ve stated a couple of times recently, I’m a relatively new but enthusiastic fan and supporter of Australian cinema. And it was heartening to see SFF opening with an Aussie prestige picture featuring popular and beloved local talent. So I’m very sorry to report I didn’t think it was a great film. Its heart is in the right place, and it has nice moments; but it suffers from poor execution and lack of an overarching vision, and is quite tedious at times.

South Solitary is set in 1927 on a remote island off New South Wales. Meredith (Miranda Otto) is a mousey single woman with lots of bad luck and no prospects, obliged to accompany her crotchety elderly uncle (Barry Otto), who has been put in charge of the lighthouse station on the island. There are only a handful of other people living on the ramshackle, maddeningly lonely station, and all of them are dysfunctional or abusive in one way or another. Indiscretions, ill-will, and bad fortune lead to Meredith being trapped on the island in a storm with Csokas’ character, an antisocial lighthouse keeper traumatized by the war. Whether they can learn to console each other’s pain and loneliness becomes the central issue.

Barrett admitted in her comments during the opening ceremony that the film had been completed the day before the premiere. Sadly it shows. The editing is quite rough, and the tone uneven. Some of the dialogue seems stilted (especially Barry Otto’s rants). A couple of major plot points are revealed in a confusing way; others produce groans. To the credit of the filmmakers, Solitary works hard. No fluffy historical epic, it’s refreshingly unromantic, and paints challenging portraits of difficult people. The bleak, grimly beautiful locations are an effective motif for the minimal plot and the emotionally stunted characters.

But things never quite come together. Where the film tries to be edgy, it merely seems murky and unformed; and where it could have used a pinch of romance or narrative drive to elevate it there is usually awkwardness. Miranda Otto is a good actress, and she does her best here. Her curiously neurotic Meredith is nonetheless sweet and charming, only hinting at depths she is too shy or browbeaten to share with most people. We end up caring for her, and are disappointed when the film provides so little else on which to anchor that feeling.

A friend who saw the film with me liked it a lot more than I did; so maybe she’s the target audience and I’m being as fussy as Barry Otto’s character. I’m glad an Australian filmmaker is working outside the box of standard historical romances — but this is a flawed film and I’m looking for more from Barrett’s next effort.

Early Days

This week I had a new post published on the Sydney Film Festival blog. It’s about appreciating Australian cinema from an American perspective, and how I’m psyched about the Aussie entries in the festival. I didn’t have to embellish it; I really do love the films of my adopted country. If it’s a pessimistic industry cliché that most Australians don’t support their own films, at least I always will.

A lot of that has to with marrying a local of course. My wife has diligently seen to my education in Aussie film. But she didn’t have to push very hard. Ever since I first visited and wanted to live here, I’ve been hungry for any material, any books or films, that might inspire me and give me clues about the place. I think we tend to underestimate the way we can learn even from fiction. Joseph Campbell wrote that a great way to get an education is to pick one author you love and respect and read everything he or she wrote. One of my chosen “authors” has been Australian cinema.

Of course I don’t yet have anything like a comprehensive knowledge of Australian films. (In case I foolishly thought I did, Roderick Heath would be around to smack me down.) But I’ve seen quite a few, enough to realize I’m a fan. And, working on my little piece, the more I thought about it, the more I remembered I’ve loved a number of Aussie films ever since I was a kid. I guess I’ve always been drawn to them.

One of my earliest cinematic memories is watching Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975) when it was first out on cable TV, which was still a wondrous new thing in our household. Today I marvel at the influence of cable in bringing foreign and independent films to us regular folks in the States who would otherwise have had no access to them. And I have to hand it to my dad for his often adventurous choices in home viewing, opening me up to all kinds of films at a young age.

I was fascinated by this, my first Australian film, a neo-gothic tale about the mysterious disappearance of some schoolgirls in the wilderness of Victoria in 1900. I was pretty young, and didn’t understand much of what was going on, but Weir’s uncanny, sun-baked, ghostly atmosphere pulled me right in. I now know the film is meant to be opaque; but even then I think I liked not knowing — I was already realizing there’s something kind of cool about that.

The vast wilderness in the center of the country as symbolic force of destiny — strange, unknowable, often destructive — is a key device in Australian fiction, and it achieves quintessence here. If you haven’t seen it, be careful about watching it late at night; this movie is unbelievably creepy considering very little actually happens. The great use of sound to communicate mystery and unnamed primal terror was hair-raising to me as a kid, and still is.

Picnic is justly considered an Australian classic. You can see why in this clip. But it also shows two things that hamper any viewing or consideration of it. One is Zamfir’s flute playing, which only sounds eerie and evocative the first ten times you hear the same melody played before it becomes grating. Far worse is the screechy performance of the voice actress in the overdubbed dialogue of one of the young characters. Considering how important sound is to the film, those awkward overdubs are a real killer.

This film was huge in kicking off the Aussie New Wave, a golden age in which a lot of films were made here with a lot of worldwide success, including Weir’s Gallipoli (1981), Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career (1979), and Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant (1980). Maybe you saw some of them on cable as a kid, like I did.

But like many Americans of my generation, the first Australian film I was truly passionate about was The Road Warrior (1981). George Miller’s wildly creative vision still epitomizes post-apocalyptic fiction of course. And it holds up as a film because, much like the original Star Wars, it was crafted with a 70s independent spirit. Not to mention its fabulous postmodern, postpunk design sensibility. In his essay “Return to Oz,” Roderick Heath makes the same comparison to Star Wars, saying that Miller was “channelling a legendary atmosphere,” and called it possibly the most influential Australian film ever made.

Looking at it now, it’s a wonderfully Aussie film in spirit too. Of course there are the amazing outback settings; but it also distills the Aussie character — the grit and wit — while largely avoiding clichés.

I started watching clips of The Road Warrior online and was a little suprised at how compelling it was even on the little window with bad quality. Go on, see if it doesn’t make you want to watch more.

I ended up watching the whole thing in sections. It’s not a revelation — I’ve never stopped loving all three Mad Max films. But I hadn’t seen this for a while. One thing I noticed this time is the brilliant visual storytelling. It flows like no other film of its kind. For an action film it has unusual emotional weight, a weary frustration and despair on the part of all the characters, even the bad guys. The wordless scene between the Feral Kid and Max, whose wife and young son were murdered by gang members, is transcendent. And there’s a queasy logic, a melancholy sense of detail, about the way the film projects the world after things fall apart. It seems all too plausible we’d be fighting each other for gasoline with crossbows looted from department stores, and hanging on to a few dusty, pathetic artifacts.

I’m pretty much over worrying about the end of the world. But tell me this kind of thing doesn’t occur to you with petroleum spewing into the Gulf of Mexico and apparently no way to stop it.

By the way, I decided on the Feral Kid as this blog’s namesake and muse a long time ago. I didn’t expect to be posting video with him featured in it so soon. But it goes to show you how influential this film was in my life and still is.